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Together we stand: Citizen activity can make a real difference to everyday life
For Estonian Kadri Soova, becoming a campaigning activist in her Schaerbeek neighbourhood was new and unexpected but, in the end, it was “just like falling love… you have no choice”. As a working parent she has little spare time but says “it was an essential thing I had to do”.
When the topic of air quality came up at her children’s school’s parents association, she agreed to help monitor it. “I ended up walking around Brussels with this measuring app for over a month,” she says. “It was a transformative experience. I was deeply affected by the results.” Shocked by how exposed people were to pollution, including her two children, she started looking at the health impacts. “I really felt angry and that’s where my engagement started.”
Soova, a migrants’ rights lobbyist who’s lived in Belgium for 10 years, got involved with the clean air campaign Filter Café Filtré, which calls for changes including car-free streets around schools and infrastructure that favours pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. Their actions included protests at school gates, gaining publicity ahead of the 2018 communal elections. “Belgian politics is complex, but that presents opportunities,” she says. “You can quite easily get up close to the people who make decisions. We considered what we could do at commune level. We liked the idea of the ‘school street’, which exists in Flemish cities, where the road is blocked off at pick-up and drop-off times.”
The mayor of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode agreed to a pilot scheme for drop-offs at one school, and has announced extending it to pickups after March and committed to launching it in two other schools. “Our success gave us a lot of positive energy to go forward,” says Soova. Her involvement led her to also join road traffic safety group 1030/0, set up in Schaerbeek in the wake of several serious road accidents. The group’s work was influential in the commune’s decision to impose a 30kph standard speed limit on all but a few roads in 2018.
They scored another success by holding a ‘human chain’ on a dangerous crossing on Boulevard Lambermont in February, which led to plans being discussed at regional level that would meet a number of their demands. “Seeing citizens from all walks of life coming together to solve something has been very empowering,” she says.
Empowering citizens to control their living environment is also one of the principal aims of the residents’ collective Quartier Wiels Wijk, in Forest. With more than 3,000 members in a Facebook group, a community meeting place that hosts weekly activities and numerous events and spin-off groups, its aims can be broadly described as trying to connect people and make the district a more pleasant, clean, green place to live and walk in.
“This is not a posh area,” says one of its coordinators, Leila Bensalem, a Dutch-Moroccan born in Belgium. “We started in 2013 by looking at the places that were under-utilised, dirty and forlorn.” Myriad activities since then have included planting creepers and fruit bushes, setting up a collective compost and creating a place for people to repair their bikes. A public ‘Gift Box’ serves as a depository where residents can leave unwanted things for anyone to take, as well as being a place where people meet. And the group’s decision to buy its first bike box put pressure on the commune to order more, with other districts following suit, says Bensalem.
Collective cleaning actions see volunteers dressing as clowns to smarten the place up, as part of their aim to “increase awareness in a lighter way”, she adds. And on their key theme of encouraging more walking, on Brussels’ annual carfree day they’ve organised several ‘Balcons Sonores’ events, where local musicians are hired to perform on balconies as a crowd of residents strolls by. Sometimes they’re pleasantly surprised by the group’s longevity, says Bensalem, adding: “Every month when we have to pay the rent, we wonder how we do it.”
Over in the EU quarter, another residents’ association has stayed the course since it was founded in 1982 to protect the area’s heritage, architecture and quality of life, as the EU institutions and office blocks encroached. The Residents Committee of Brussels’ European Quarter – known as GAQ – covers all spheres of life, “from dog poo to the building projects of the European Parliament”, says its chair, Hannes Frank.
Frank, a German who’s lived in Brussels for 28 years, says urbanism and mobility are what currently concerns them most. Among the most high-profile issues is the Schuman project, which promises to turn the notorious roundabout into a public space dubbed an “urban agora” by transport minister Pascal Smet.
The plan falls short of its potential, says GAQ, as it retains the residents’ long-hated “urban highway” of Avenue de Cortenbergh and Rue de la Loi, while pedestrianising other local streets. The square itself is heralded as a future shared space “but there’s nothing there”, says Frank. “We are all for the new face of an attractive Schuman Square which really solves the transport problems, but that can only be achieved with close coordination with the expert citizens living there. There’s a lack of transparency and public consultation.” While their district had been regarded as “no man’s land”, citizens have persevered to have their voices heard, he says. “It’s changing partly because we’re being a pain. We keep reminding the politicians that we’re the citizens they’re supposed to work for.”
Living so close to the corridors of power serves as a reminder that local action ultimately feeds into wider politics. While campaigns exist to increase citizens’ participation in mainstream politics too, such as 1Bru1Vote and Agora, many choose to approach problems from the grassroots up. One of the most notable reactions to a wider issue has been citizens’ response to the plight of refugees and ‘transmigrants’ sleeping rough in Brussels.
Belgian fashion designer Roxane Hauzeur responded to calls from the Citizens’ Refugee Support Platform for people to help by hosting migrants in their homes, taking in several people a night for four months. “I first went along with a friend who was hosting. When I saw those guys, with nothing to hope for except waiting for someone to come, I said ‘I can’t not do it’. They weren’t being considered as human beings.”
Hauzeur, who currently provides regular transport for hosted migrants, plus other support, adds: “It’s been important to show my children that we can help other people. I’d been wanting to help for a while – when this came up I said ‘this is the time, this is something I can do’.”
This article first appeared in The Bulletin Spring 2019 magazine